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Save Money? Release Prisoners

Rick Green

November 18, 2010

Here's an interesting question: Are we safer because of harsher state drug laws -- such as strict penalties for drug arrests near schools -- or are we just corralling more people and filling up prison cells with inmates who ought not to be living at taxpayers' expense?

I don't know, but I'm glad a business group studying state spending is starting to ask questions about the cost of our correction, parole and probation systems -- an $800 million behemoth that continues to grow.

Just maybe, the report from the Connecticut Regional Institute for the 21st Century politely suggests, we are locking too many people up.

The cost is astonishing: The state Department of Correction budget has increased 280 percent since 1990. We spend about $92 per day, per inmate in Connecticut. Our present prison population is about 18,500.

"One of the most promising findings of the institute's study is that increased incarceration does not reduce crime,'' concludes a summary of the study, which was prepared by Blum Shapiro, a local accounting and consulting firm. "Once the most serious offenders are locked up ... the crime prevention pay-off of additional incarcerations declines and overall costs to society may actually increase."

The study, important because it is backed by leaders of the state's business community, makes a number of suggestions, including:

--Decrease the prison population by releasing low-risk offenders. Prisoner re-entry programs must be expanded and state businesses must commit to hiring more ex-offenders.

--Renegotiate costly union contracts.

--Expand collaboration with community organizations that work with ex-offenders.

--Provide more unified leadership of correction, parole and probation systems.

--Examine more closely why we jail so many minorities.

"This is one of the higher cost items in the state budget. To the extent that we can deliver services more efficiently, that helps everyone,'' said James Torgersoncq, CEO of UIL Holdings and chairman of the regional institute's steering committee. "We have got to make sure there are jobs for [ex-offenders]. The business community has got to step up."

Brian Renstromcq, a partner at BlumShapirocq, told me Connecticut has been doing many innovative things, such as emphasizing prisoner re-entry programs and reducing the number of inmates who return to prison.

"What is it that we want to accomplish?" Renstrom asked me. "Do we want to lock up petty drug offenders? Is that making us safer?"

We know that locking more and more people up doesn't make our streets safer. Over the last few decades, the prison population has grown even though the number of accused has remained largely steady.

It's significant progress that business leaders are waking up to prison reform. It's now time for our new governor and state legislature to pay close attention.

Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant. To view other stories on this topic, search the Hartford Courant Archives at http://www.courant.com/archives.
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